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Pre-Election Jitters Prompt Some Whites to Stockpile

April 7, 1994

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Gun shops have run out of guns. Candles, soap and canned goods are disappearing. Forget about finding gas stoves or the cylinders that fuel them.

With the tensions surrounding this month’s historic election threatening to erupt into widespread chaos, some white South Africans are stocking up on survival food and gear.

″You’d be naive not to,″ Mervin Solomon said Wednesday as he and his wife picked up powdered and canned goods in the fashionable Sandton City shopping complex.

″Maybe,″ he added almost wistfully, ″there will be a week of high celebration and then back to normal.″

Nodding to the tinned goods, Pam Solomon added: ″I mean, once they put the lights out we’re not going to be eating out of the refrigerator, right?″

The April 26-28 vote will include the black majority for the first time, and recent violence has stoked deep-rooted white fears of vast instability, maybe even civil war. The great majority are carrying on with their daily lives, but a significant number - enough to have caught the notice of shop owners - are preparing for the worst.

Unlike other African countries, South Africa has never experienced widespread shortages or extreme service cuts, not even during years of guerrilla campaigns by anti-apartheid groups.

Now, however, anxiety about such disruptions is high, with fears most often centered on white extremists, who recently boasted of bombing power pylons and African National Congress offices, and on Zulu nationalists who oppose the election. The siege mentality was reinforced last week by graphic photographic coverage of thousands of Zulus marching into Johannesburg, with the ensuing violence leaving dozens dead in the streets.

Since then, a wave of faxes and circulars, some on the letterhead of banks and businesses, has warned of widespread looting and violence after the election and urged people to stock up on essentials.

Ronnie Mamoepa of the ANC, the black group expected to win the election, called such ″rumors″ disinformation meant to destabilize the country. He urged people to ignore them.

But many people, especially whites, are heeding the warnings.

Reports of hysterical shoppers waiting in long lines to horde dwindling supplies proved untrue, but retail outlets in white areas confirm increased customer and sales volume, with certain products moving especially briskly.

″I’ve got no stock left. No stock whatsoever,″ said Bruce Venter at Gunrunner, a suburban weapons shop. Gun owners have cleaned out ammunition supplies, he said, while other people have bought their first weapons - usually shotguns or handguns.

Happy to ring up the sales, Venter confided he thought the whole thing was ″a bit of an over-reaction. ... I don’t see that the man in the street is going to have to arm himself for combat.″

At the Westgate shopping mall in suburban Roodepoort, Theo Theodorou said customers in his camping store bought all his water purification tablets, dehydrated food and gas cylinders.

There was no panic, he said. Told that purification tablets - sought in case water service is cut or contaminated - had run out, customers calmly said they would return when new supplies arrived.

″I think people pick up things and say, ’Let’s take some of it, just in case,‴ Theodorou said. ″It’s more short-term stuff, I would say.″

Riedwaan Adams of Adams Motorcycles, whose shop also sell motors, told of non-stop telephone calls inquiring about electric generators, mostly from people who know little about them.

″They want to use it on the whole house,″ he said. His largest, a 6,000- watt model capable of powering a few kitchen appliances at most, costs slightly less than $2,000. Callers seemed more interested in renting for a month or two, he said.

Major retailers had expected sales to rise for the Easter holiday, one of two major annual vacation breaks when many shops are shuttered for four to six days. But the increase exceeded all projections.

Mervyn Serebro, group managing director of the OK Bazaar line of department-grocery stores, said sales of canned goods, soap, candles, gas cylinders, gas cookers and paraffin stoves were sharply higher.

Hyperama stores managing director Philip Grover said gas-fueled barbecue grills and camp stoves sold faster than he could supply them. Overall sales were 20 percent above 1993 figures, he said.

″The customers have been talking in the stores about stocking up,″ Grover said, but he added: ″There’s no massive lines.″

Customer Sandy Desatnik at the Sandton City Hyperama called stocking up a ″load of rubbish.″

″All it takes is someone to start a rumor and it has snowballed,″ she said.

Rumors were everywhere. One had British Airways planning extra emergency flights to South Africa to evacuate British nationals in case of anarchy or war.

Vicky Sinclair, the airline’s sales manager in Johannesburg, tried to lay that one to rest. ″There is absolutely no intention of adding additional flights,″ she said. ″There is no emergency planning.″